Kevin Hart, CIO of Level 3 Communications, deals with an unusual dynamic inside his company. "Some of the executives know more about the tech than the tech guys," he says.
That's due in part to the nature of Level 3's business: A fiber-based communications services company is bound to have a tech-savvy executive team.
But understanding the technologies that power their business is not the same thing as understanding how IT can be a strategic differentiator. For all the knowledge in the executive ranks, Hart still has to work on getting people on board with his priorities. To do that, he needs his own staff to speak the language of business.
One way of getting there is Level 3's CIO University, a forum in which he meets with his top 50 IT leaders. There, technology isn't the focus of discussion. Instead, Hart and his team discuss pressing issues facing the business--in business terms. Topics like process discipline, change management and aligning IT with the business are more commonly mentioned than anything to do with specific technologies.
Bridging the business-IT divide is a problem CIOs struggle with every day. Overcoming it requires strong communication, with CIOs and their deputies clearly articulating how IT can move the business forward. That means moving past their technical pedigrees and replacing them with business acumen.
Historically, IT pros haven't been known for their communication prowess. For decades, businesses plucked IT pros with deep technical backgrounds to become overseers of the departments in which they grew up. As newly minted CIOs, they've been expected to educate non-IT executives about IT. Do it well, and you might find yourself getting kudos and a seat at the executive table. Do it poorly, and you could lose your seat.
"Just because you have an office in a certain part of the building doesn't mean you're part of the team," says Chris Curran, CTO with Diamond Management and Technology Consultants. "While the boss hopes you are, the other members of the executive team won't buy in if the CIO doesn't speak in business terms and understand business needs and the needs of customers."
Once an IT organization becomes versed in the language of business, it can more effectively collaborate with the business. As a result, it can communicate what IT has to offer the company as a whole.
Talking a good game isn't enough. Level 3's Hart learned that from years as an IT executive at companies like Southwestern Bell and International Paper, and as a consultant with CapGemini. "I'm really trying to walk the talk in terms of educating my team on what it means to run a business," he says.
Engaging the Business
CEOs today are seeking IT leaders who can speak in both business and technology terms. "In this world, you've got to be both," says Eric Sigurdson, CIO practice leader with executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates. "You have to be technical and be ready to drill down at a moment's notice, but you also have to remain strategic and keep that seat at the table."
Getting into that inner circle hasn't been easy for a lot of CIOs, who traditionally have come to the job without a clear career track. For decades, business executives recruited techies to the CIO role. After a while, they began to favor general managers in that position. Today, CEOs are looking for a true hybrid. These shifts in the top management's preferences made it hard for aspiring CIOs to know exactly what skills to develop.
And many IT organizations have existed as order-takers. If a company views its IT shop as a utility, then the "C" in CIO won't be equal to the "C" in the CFO, COO or CMO job titles. In other words, those CIOs will be viewed as reactive--as opposed to proactive--and probably don't spend as much time collaborating with their executive peers, adding to the communication gap.
Determining how to engage business leaders, Curran says, requires the CIO to understand what drives them: growth and innovation, or cost containment?
To involve the innovation-minded, Curran recommends a few tactics that he's seen work at client companies. For one, CIOs can seek out a partnership with a university lab: That allows them to not only leverage others' expertise, but also to save money by avoiding additional purchases and hires.
One insurance company he worked was struggling to reduce fraud in claims, and MIT's Media Lab suggested it dig deeper into the context of each claim. The result: The company found that most of the claims data came from unstructured e-mails and documents from the adjuster, and MIT helped the company develop a way it could take that part of the process in-house.
Another option: CIOs can invite a business partner within their companies to attend a business-oriented technology conference. There, the business executive can hear from top thinkers about issues such as IT spending and governance, all while learning what other companies are doing to manage these challenges.
For cost-conscious companies, CIOs can organize portfolio management reviews, in which business and technology operatives work together to prioritize investments. "A lot of those can end up being things that don't smell like business investments, so the business pooh-poohs them," Curran says.
They could also perform disaster recovery drills, letting business partners get a view of IT's role in the process, as well as what's most important to the IT shop in doing it successfully. "The eyes really open," Curran says. "The exercise is not theoretical--it's real."